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Atheists Threaten Lawsuit Over Johnson Amendment Exemption in GOP Tax Bill

Washington, DCFollowing the release of the House Republicans’ tax cut package today, American Atheists threatened a lawsuit if the bill were to become law.

Included in the bill is a provision that would exempt churches and other religious entities from the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 requirement that nonprofit organizations—including churches—refrain from partisan political activity, which includes endorsing candidates or spending money on election campaigns.

The language of the bill would allow religious groups, but not secular nonprofits like American Atheists, to endorse or oppose candidates, as long as that activity was part of the “ordinary course” of the group’s activities.

“They just can’t help themselves,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, staff attorney for American Atheists. “They’re not simply repealing the Johnson Amendment. They’re specifically exempting churches—and only churches—from the requirement, giving them even more special treatment on the basis of religious belief. The Equal Protection violation here couldn’t be more clear.”

Contrary to the claims of those who support the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, churches and other religious organizations are already free to discuss issues that are of concern to them, including hot-button political issues.

“We will not sit idly by while Congress creates a massive loophole that would turn churches into unaccountable, tax-deductible Super PACs for billionaires to hijack our nation’s electoral system,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. “With no transparency, no disclosure, and even a tax break for donating, every church in America would become a political weapon.

“If this bill is signed with the Johnson Amendment exemption in place, we’ll have no choice but to sue,” added Silverman.

According to estimates from Giving USA, Americans donated more than $119 billion to churches and religious groups in 2015. If just 5% of that money had been redirected to political purposes, it would have eclipsed the total amount of money spent on 2016 federal elections, $6.5 billion.